The term sexual predator is used pejoratively to describe a person seen as obtaining or trying to obtain sexual contact with another person in a metaphorically "predatory" manner. Analogous to how a predator hunts down its prey, so the sexual predator is thought to "hunt" for his or her sex partners. People who commit sex crimes, such as rape or child sexual abuse, are commonly referred to as sexual predators, particularly in tabloid media or as a power phrase by politicians.
The term is applied according to a person's moral beliefs, and does not necessarily denote criminal behavior. For example, a person who cruises a bar looking for consensual sex from someone else could be considered a sexual predator by some.
The BDSM community often uses Predator as a term for someone that seeks out Dominance and submission parties that are new to the lifestyle. These parties would use the submissive or Dominant in a manner that suited their personal needs instead of encouraging them to grow and learn on their own about this culture.
In that same circle there are also Predators that are simply hunters, they seek a certain type of personality, age group, fetish or play style. They often refer to themselves as Predators and enjoy the game of Hunter/prey.
Some U.S. states have a special status for criminals designated as sexually violent predators, which allows these offenders to be held in prison after their sentence is complete if they are considered to be a risk to the public. They can also be placed on a sex offender list which is viewable by everyone on the Internet.
According to the NBC news program Dateline, as of January 2006, law enforcement officials estimate that as many as 50,000 sexual predators are online at any given moment. That number has been cited by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in speeches touting the dangers of child predators. However the origins of that figure have been questioned by Legal Times, and Dateline says it will no longer use it. Janis Wolak of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire found that many parental fears about Internet sex predators are misinterpretations of the danger.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover is attributed with the first known use of the term in the 1920s. It was popularized in the 1990s by Andrew Vachss and 48 Hours. The word is not found at all in newspapers of 1985 and 1986, but occurs 321 times in 1992, 865 times in 1994, and 924 times in 1995.